Minister Catherine Martin, TD on sources for women’s history in the Virtual Record Treasury

In her speech at the launch of the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland Catherine Martin, TD, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media expressed her sincere appreciation of the work of the Beyond 2022 team in realising their vision for recreating a virtual archive filled with digital replacements for some of the archival records lost in the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland on 30 June 1922.

The Minister drew particular attention to the contribution of women as reflected in the research which has been published during the Decade of Centenaries and the records now available through the Virtual Record Treasury, saying

“One of the great legacies of the Decade of Centenaries is a richer understanding and appreciation of the important contribution of women in shaping our past. Often for the first time, a light has been shone on women’s experiences and influence in the significant historical events that shaped our journey towards independence and self-determination.

Women were conducting research in the Public Record Office from the early years, both as scholars and as paid genealogists. Isabel Grubb (1881–1972), the Irish Quaker historian, was one such scholar, who used its collections extensively in the autumn of 1915. Some of her carefully typewritten notes were returned to the Record Office following the fire. They show an interest in social and economic life in Ireland, at a time when political and military matters and the history of ‘States’ predominated in academia. Isabel’s notes about records that were subsequently destroyed in the fire, touch on all aspects of everyday life across the towns of 18th century Ireland, including Limerick, Cork, Dublin, Waterford, Kilkenny and Armagh. She referenced, for example, a petition of 1721 from Limerick to the Irish parliament, then situated at College Green, for relief of the poor who ‘flock to the city on account of dearth and mortality of cattle’.

I am particularly interested in what we can learn from the recovered archives about women’s experiences and lives over the past seven centuries. Wills – testamentary collections – are a key source where the voices of women are directly heard, even from centuries ago in a patriarchal society. The records show us that widows had a degree of autonomy in choosing how to live and how they wished to dispose of their possessions after death. The inventories of goods in wills provides a fascinating insight into everyday social circumstances and material culture, also illuminating how women’s experiences varied depending on social position, wealth and personal circumstances. Women in different stages of life had very different opportunities. The archival discoveries of Beyond 2022 show how widows had autonomy to make arrangements for their estates and interests.

Two of the very few original wills to miraculously survive the blaze concern female testators. In 1748, Elizabeth Clarke, wife of Gabriel Clarke, a merchant of Dublin, proved her will in Dublin. It’s so interesting to see the personal gifts and bequests described in this document. To Catherine Saule, Elizabeth granted her snuff-box, toothpick case, and nutmeg case. To her maid servant, Elizabeth Carroll, she left five pounds and ‘half a dozen of her second best shifts and cloth aprons and her green taffety nightgown’. To her brother-in-law, she left a ‘field bed and bedding’.”

IMC is delighted to announce ongoing work on sources for women’s history sponsored by Minister Martin’s department. In April 2022 Professor Mary O’Dowd was awarded a small grant from the Mná100 section of the Decade of Centenaries unit to make available online a searchable database of sources for women’s history first published by IMC as a CD ROM over 20 years ago. Professor O’Dowd is working with Dr Maria Luddy, Dr Frances Nolan and Mr Niall O’Leary under the aegis of the Irish Manuscripts Commission to publish online a revised database by the end of this year. Watch this space for updates!